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Conception, Chile: totally washed out


“The atmospheric conditions have been very unfavourable lately……….It has been raining,” explained Owl.

“Yes,” said Christopher Robin. “It has.”

“The flood-level has reached an unprecedented height.”

“The who?”

“There’s a lot of water about” explained Owl……”however, the prospects are rapidly becoming more favourable. At any moment….” At that exact moment, a logging truck barrelled into the tree in which Christopher Robin and Owl were conversing and turned the hundred acre wood into the scene of a terrible accident, the first to involve a Chilean truck driver, a small English story time hero and a talking Owl.

This is perhaps what A.A. Milne might have written if he had been travelling in and around Conception while writing “The House at Pooh Corner”.

Inundation. I love that word, or hate it, I`m not sure which. I’ve seen it on the news a lot recently here in Chile. We don’t use it a lot in english, I’m not sure why, it sounds great, almost like something you should be proud of. For greater clarity, I thought I might include the definition:

inundación (esp.) / Inundation (eng.); the rising of a body of water and its overflowing onto normally dry land

Now water hasn’t proved a problem in my journey up until now, it simply means I get wet and have to dry stuff when my skin becomes white and wrinkled. But here, in Conception, I have ground to a halt due to a potent mixture of wind, rain, lack of hard shoulder and a vehicle I have learned to respect and avoid…..the logging truck, with its playful and unpredictable second trailer.

On the lovely dry “route of the Conquistadors” from Santiago to Conception, a number of these vehicles wooshed past, the pines flanking the road bowing lightly in their turbulence. First one feels the barage of air shunted ahead by the flat fronted cab, then the seemingly airless void as both trailers blurr past your left cheek. And then, sucking at the large surface area of Achilles and his two pasengers, the magnetic force of the trailers pull you into the road for an instant, and then they’re gone, the second trailer fish tailing well over the white line in a happy go lucky salute.

The road south has lost its hard shoulder and appears to have been specially engineered to collect huge volumes of rainwater, 60kph winds ensuring that the driver can never be sure where the air ends and the water begins. Thanks, but I think I’ll wait until tomorrow to tackle this section…..I’ve been saying that for a week, and been on the verge of leaving twice, but for the first time, all weather forecasts don’t have anything negative to say about tomorrow!

However staying in one place has almost never been so comfortable. I left Santiago with Horacio, who’d decided to give making beautiful ceramic masks and sculptures a rest for a week and sample a life on the road. We quickly tired of Ruta 5, the main north south highway here in Chile, and hung a left into the rolling hills and forests near San Javier, one of the principle forestry areas in chile. Memories of Oregon and Northern California came flooding back as we cycled happily through the fresh still air of autumn, pines, Eucalypts and native oaks colouring the folded hills with greens, yellows and rusty browns.

One day we cycled through the vineyards, all possible camping spots blocked by tall expensive gates hiding car ports and swimming pools. At the bottom of a nearby hill covered with pines, we found a track winding away into the trees. It looked promising but after 300 yards a house emerged, a large old house. Horacio and I parked the bike and stood some distance away shouting “Hooolllaaa, is anybody there??” while trying to smile politely at the small band of dogs eyeing us suspiciously.

Half an hour later, after Claudia had appeared tentatively in her slippers, and after being told on absolutely no account could we camp here, we were sitting in the classical high ceilinged kitchen warmed by a large wood burning stove, drinking tea and eating bread and avocado. The Astaburuaga family had ushered us into their incredible home, awash with gleaming wooden floors and antiques that would make the average royal residence seem bland and ordinary. Never on this journey had I slept in such classical luxury, yet another small wood stove at the foot of my bed, crackling soothingly in the otherwise silent house, generations of books sitting dormant in the library, and polished leather horse saddles hanging like figureheads on the walls in the darkness.

The next night Horacio and I were camped outside a quiet petrol station, back to normal again, the palacial quarters of the night before becoming a distant dream the physical remains of which was a bottle of the family’s fine wine, which we sipped out of plastic mugs while cooking pasta in the damp air.

Only twelve hours later we were being treated like royalty once more, but this time in the confines of the Busto family home, two sons and their elderly father building an extension to their squat adobe house, set apart from any other in a large stand of pine trees. The dry smooth mud walls radiated heat from the stove top crammed with simmering stews and boiling potatoes, while we chatted and drank generous servings of pipeno (home made wine) with the men, as interested in our journey as we were in their simple but very complete lives. Rather than expensive antiques, the Bustos had three beautiful strings of red chillies hanging to dry above the cooker.

I have been in Conception for about two weeks, and have not passed a second of that period alone or wanting in any way. From the minute Horacio and I arrived, we were escorted into town by the students of DUOC, the technical college here in Conception that have taken it upon themselves to give me hospitality I will never be likely to forget. Cordon bleu cuisine in the gastronomy department, state of the art edit suites to play with my videos, lecture theatres, plentiful audiences and press calls to publicise my voyage, and most importantly, near family and friends with which to spend my time with.

I leave Conception with a heavy heart, my motivation to continue dwindling and my powerful roots gathering strength. Weather prospects are not good, and most normal cyclists have stopped for the season, waiting until patagonian summer raises its pretty head. If I wait until then however, like a stubborn wisdom tooth, I will be nearly impossible to remove from my comfortable home here.

From Conception I travel south past the poorest city in Chile, Lota, where a disused cavernous coal mine sits surrounded by the depression of sooty poverty, the last blackened barrier before the true south of Chile, where the now modest population of Mapuche people can still be found.

The wind and rain I can hear battering the window has about eight hours to do what it wants, then I will politely ask it to bugger off, before I roll on down with a Chilean Rastafarian who won’t so much as touch my much loved staple foodstuff, tuna.

More about Dominic’s travels on his own website.

Dominic completed his journey in August 2008 after which he made a documentary film about the adventure called ‘Take A Seat’. the 47 minute film won the Special Jury Prize at Banff Mountain Film Festival. Since then He has written a book of the same name and completed another journey by tandem bicycle across the United States with ten individuals with physical and mental impairments taking a seat on his bicycle and sharing the ride. A ten part series about this journey will air on cable TV in the United States in April, after which Dominic will probably disappear again…and again….and again…..keep up to date at www.dominicgill.me

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